Beyond The Color Line

The headline caught my eye:  “The Good News About Race in America”, Jason Riley’s interview with Abigail Thernstrom appearing in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal. Thernstrom expressed dismay at Attorney General Eric Holder’s comments, which she described in exaggerated terms:  “Did you hear Eric Holder the other day say how much he loves Al Sharpton?” This clip shows an anodyne acknowledgement of a controversial host’s record of hard work on behalf of the disenfranchised, rather than a sweeping unqualified endorsement.  (Reverend Sharpton’s record as a media figure and advocate is mixed; his role in the Tawana Brawley case is duly noted.)

Her description of her position on the periphery of the civil rights movement—“marching around in front of Woolworth’s in Cambridge (Mass.) in the ‘60s”—pales in comparison to what happened to mixed-race military families like mine who were sent to southern Army posts during that time. My father did not have the luxury of declining an assignment to Fort Gordon, Georgia. He wore his dress uniform off base to ensure his safety, since it was a federal crime to assault a member of the military.  My parents shielded my sister and me from many of the minor indignities of everyday living. It was still up to us to play our own small pioneering roles, simply by going to school, holding our heads up when everybody else received party invitations, and defying or exceeding expectations.

If we had to bite our tongues over small slights, we could express ourselves in the voting booth. And we did. Voting came naturally in my family. Perhaps not in every municipal election (particularly if we were new to an area), but we follow the national elections the way some of our friends follow the NFL. We’ve never taken our right to vote for granted, perhaps since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed during my lifetime. The point of the law was to increase, not restrict, access to the ballot. It is absurd to pretend that voting rights are at not threatened when efforts to curtail them are cynically disguised as anti-fraud measures, when they are remedies in search of problems. Her claim that racial gerrymandering and lack of competition a larger role in suppressing minority turnout than voter-ID laws doesn’t make sense—wouldn’t sequestering a population within a selected district help improve voter turnout? Voter suppression is multi-factorial and not limited to voter-ID requirements:  bad weather, intimidation efforts executed as targeted mailings and media efforts, and lack of transportation on election day can be effective as well.

When does the group advocate on behalf of its members, and when is it protecting its own interests? It is a fair question, and one that can—and should—be put to not only the Congressional Black Caucus, but also the Congressional Hispanic Conference. This topic is fair game for both sides of the aisle.

There is good news about race in this country:  it is stitched into the fabric of our national story by the hard-working individuals who use the opportunities made possible by publicly funded education or military service.  Many of them now struggle to keep their tenuous foothold on the ladder of success. This is a complex tale, and more difficult to tell because it doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker. Many of these gains may be jeopardized if voting rights are threatened.